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‘Pride and Prejudice’ at Gallery Theater: Not your grandmother’s Jane Austen

Director Katrina Godderz calls Kate Hamill's adaptation a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” take on the romantic comedy.

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Mr. Bennet (played by Daric Moore) is consoled by family members (from left) Jane (Amanda Westphal), Mrs. Bennet (Megan Reed), and Lizzy (Ali Bean) in "Pride and Prejudice." The romantic comedy continues Fridays through Sundays through Aug. 13 at Gallery Theater in McMinnville. Photo courtesy: Gallery Theater
Mr. Bennet (played by Daric Moore) is consoled by family members (from left) Jane (Amanda Westphal), Mrs. Bennet (Megan Reed), and Lizzy (Ali Bean) in “Pride and Prejudice.” The romantic comedy continues Fridays through Sundays through Aug. 13 at Gallery Theater in McMinnville. Photo courtesy: Gallery Theater

Since it was published anonymously in three parts in 1815, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has become something of a playground for creative license, having inspired a variety of retellings and reimaginings for stage, film, and television. And even more books, one of which has zombies.

The latest entry in the Austen oeuvre is Kate Hamill’s 2017 snappy mash-up of a play. It opened last weekend at Gallery Theater in McMinnville to packed houses in the 70-seat black box and runs two more weekends through Aug. 13.

Hamill, one of the most-produced playwrights in America, for the past six years or so has had a prolific output of plays that reimagine classic texts with a feminist spin. The Sherlock Holmes stories inspired Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson — Apt. 2b. Bram Stoker’s famous vampire novel became Dracula (a feminist revenge fantasy). In adapting Austen for the stage, Hamill took on Sense and Sensibility in 2016, which did extremely well in New York. That cleared a glide path to what is, by virtue of the sheer number of adaptations, the most popular of Austen’s six novels — all of which Hamill intends to adapt for the stage.

“Over 17 film and television adaptations and hundreds of literary adaptations indicate by jove, we love this tale,” director Katrina Godderz writes in the program. “Why all this racket? I do not know.”

Mr. Darcy (played by Nehemiah Creel) vociferously expresses himself in "Pride and Prejudice" at Gallery Theater in McMinnville. Photo courtesy: Gallery Theater
The generally stoic Mr. Darcy (played by Nehemiah Creel) vociferously expresses himself in “Pride and Prejudice” at Gallery Theater in McMinnville. Photo courtesy: Gallery Theater

For the few who have perhaps never seen or read it, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic comedy (Austen herself regarded it as a comedy) that centers on the courtly dance between an independent-minded Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a dashing, wealthy landowner who is nearly as stoic as Mr. Spock.

Mr. Darcy, a role that’s been played by Laurence Olivier and, more recently, Colin Firth, is played by Nehemiah Creel in this production. It marks the third turn on the Gallery boards for Creel, who also attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s summer seminar as a junior at Willamina High School. Lizzy is played by Ali Bean, a self-described Austen “superfan” who appeared with Creel last summer in a wildly successful run of Mamma Mia! on Gallery’s mainstage.

Before we go further: The obligatory disclosure that I’ve been a Gallery actor on and off since the late 1990s and have worked with several of the actors in this production, including Megan Reed. In Pride and Prejudice, she plays the excitable Mrs. Bennet, arguably one of the play’s most coveted roles and a character who fails spectacularly and hilariously at reading the room, then roars through it like a bull in a crystal store. Reed is a force of nature, sweeping around the stage deploying a full arsenal of hilarious vocal, facial, and physical flourishes.

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That’s in stark contrast with the sedate country gentleman and family patriarch, Mr. Bennett (played by Gallery veteran Daric Moore), who seeks shelter from the magnificent storm that is his wife by spending virtually all of his time reading a newspaper. Just when you think that’s pretty much all he’ll do, a unilateral move by one of his daughter’s suitors compels him to act.

Aside from the bluster of Mrs. Bennet, the comedy ensues largely from what might be termed a memorably zany family of daughters, several of whom the parents are determined to marry off to wealthy men because as women, none is eligible to be the family heir. (One of the book’s Bennet daughters, Kitty, does not appear here).

Along with Lizzy, the rest of the family includes the eldest, Jane (Amanda Westphal), the youngest, Lydia (Lisa Gryshchenko, in her Gallery debut), and the eccentric Mary, one of two characters where Hamill allows for some gender-bending. The bookish daughter, always garbed in black, is creepily but slyly portrayed by Soren Smithrud as what Godderz terms a “bride-of-Nosferatu” brought to life. Another character, Lydia’s sutor, Mr. Wickham, is played by Erika Fox.

In a June 2017 interview with the New York Times, Hamill acknowledged that she was taking liberties, and that her script incorporated her own “historical ambivalence about marriage.” “People might feel I have desecrated their idols,” she told the Times, “but you know, at least I’ve tried to do something interesting.”

In other words, this isn’t your grandmother’s Jane Austen.

“If you’re a fan of the book, you’ll recognize some of the dialogue,” Godderz said. “I see this play as commenting more on the time of Pride and Prejudice than on the book itself.”

Present day, she added, “has quite a different set of social rules and expectations than 1815, and the script has a few moments where it gives nod to a recognition of this, but it’s not trying to rewrite the story.” Hamill’s script, she said, “is very much a wink-wink, nudge-nudge sort of take on Pride and Prejudice, full of sassy haughtiness, but in a rather tasteful way.”

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The smarmy suitor Mr. Collins (played by Sean Brady) makes a not-so-welcome overture to Elizabeth Bennet (Ali Bean) in "Pride and Prejudice" at Gallery Theater. Photo courtesy: Gallery Theater
The smarmy suitor Mr. Collins (played by Sean Brady) makes a not-so-welcome overture to Elizabeth Bennet (Ali Bean) in “Pride and Prejudice” at Gallery Theater. Photo courtesy: Gallery Theater

Godderz is a relative newcomer at Gallery, having moved to McMinnville in the past few years from Olympia, where she was active in theater. She appeared in the ensemble last summer for Mamma Mia! and played Vera in And Then There Were None. Most recently, she directed the well-received one-act The Actor in January, which featured Smithrud in the difficult title role.

The production strikes me as particularly well-cast; it is difficult to imagine many of the actors in the company playing any of the other characters. Rounding out the ensemble are Joseph Cannon as Mr. Bingley (a role played in the New York production, incidentally, by former Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor John Tufts), Karen Olsen as Charlotte Lucas, Sean Brady (making his Gallery debut) as the self-absorbed buffoon Mr. Collins, Bec Hasel as a servant who is clearly paying attention to the goings-on, Larissa Miller doing double duty as Miss de Bourgh and Miss Bingley, and finally, newcomer V. Simone Stewart as Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 13. Gallery’s box office is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, and on show days starting one hour before curtain. Tickets may be purchased there or online. For more information, call 503-472-2227.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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